On May 5, Northern Irish voters will finally go to the polls to elect a new Assembly after a rollercoaster five years. It is widely expected to be one of the most hotly contested elections in Northern Irish history. Bitter fighting between unionist political factions within and amongst parties has opened the door for Sinn Fein to become the largest party, allowing a nationalist party to take the position of First Minister for the first time. Increasing rejection of the traditional unionist/nationalist divide in Northern Irish politics has also opened the door to a large increase in support for moderate parties, with the focus increasingly on the cost-of-living crisis.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is housed at Stormont in Belfast. There are 90 MLAs. Matters devolved to the Assembly include education, environment, agriculture, housing, transport, health and justice amongst others. The government itself is known as the power-sharing executive. It is led by the first and deputy first ministers – the leaders of the largest unionist and nationalist parties. They have equal powers. There are 10 ministerial posts in total. These positions are allocated amongst the parties proportionally using the d’hondt method. After 2017, five parties – Sinn Fein, DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance – had enough seats to be allocated at least one ministerial position.
239 candidates from 17 parties along with 25 independents are running across 18 five-seat constituencies in this election. They will be elected by the Single Transferable Vote form of Proportional Representation. Voters will rank the candidates in their constituency – they can rank as many or as few as they like. In order to be elected, candidates must reach the quota (the number of valid votes cast divided by six, plus one). If no candidate reaches the quota on first preference votes alone, the lowest ranking candidates will be eliminated, and their second preferences redistributed until someone is elected. If someone is elected with more votes than the quota, then their excess votes (the surplus) are redistributed to lower preferences. These two methods continue until all five MLAs are elected.
Which parties are running?
Democratic Unionist Party (30 candidates) – 28 seats – unionist – national conservative
Leader – Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
The dominant unionist party for the last 20 years. It has been led since last summer by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, having been through unprecedented turmoil. Former leader Arlene Foster was ousted by Environment Minister Edwin Poots, who himself lasted just three weeks. Internal tensions remain and they are at substantial risk of losing a lot of seats.
Sinn Féin (34 candidates) – 27 seats – republican – populist left
Leader – Michelle O’Neill (Northern Ireland), May Lou MacDonald (All-Island)
The dominant nationalist/republican party for the last 20 years. Has enjoyed 18 months of plain sailing and is hoping to build on strong election results in the Republic of Ireland by becoming the largest party for the first time.
Social Democratic and Labour Party (22 candidates) – 12 seats – nationalist – social democracy
Leader – Colum Eastwood
Moderate nationalists who have a strong leadership but have been struggling for momentum despite robust general election results in 2019. They are struggling to define themselves amongst the other parties and have no real hope of overtaking Sinn Fein.
Ulster Unionist Party (26 candidates) – 10 seats – unionist – conservative (increasingly liberal under new leadership)
Leader – Doug Beattie
Has undergone a transformation since Doug Beattie became leader in 2021. Its leadership is now much more unapologetically socially progressive and is trying to put daylight between itself and the DUP. Questions remain about their new progressive credentials. Prevarication of the Northern Ireland Protocol has been damaging, but they’ve come far since the days of being in an alliance with the Conservatives.
Alliance (24 candidates) – 8 seats – non-sectarian – liberal
Leader – Naomi Long
Looking to build on massive gains in the 2019 council, European and general elections. They have close ties to the Liberal Democrats at UK level. Widely expected to make gains. They will be competing with the UUP for many of the DUP’s expected losses.
Green Party (18 candidates) – 2 seats – non-sectarian – green left
Leader – Clare Bailey
One of the more left-wing green parties in Europe. They have had increasing attention recently with the passing of two bills they created and major climate legislation which they heavily influenced. Riding a bit of a wave right now which they will be hoping brings their two MLAs home safe and possible gain them another.
Traditional Unionist Voice (19 candidates) – 1 seat – loyalist – ultra-conservative
Leader – Jim Allister
Currently a one-man band in the shape of Jim Allister, who is one of the loudest people in local media – he has an uncanny ability to get into the headlines. Have seen a recent rise in popularity due to their hard-line stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Could be strong in a variety of constituencies but will find it difficult to get over line given they are very transfer-unfriendly.
People Before Profit (12 candidates) – 1 seat – non-sectarian – socialism
Leader – Collective
Socialists who broadly support a united Ireland but designate themselves as “other” in the Assembly. Gained prominence on the back of veteran civil rights campaigner Eamonn McCann. Only relevant in a handful of constituencies.
The following parties have no representation in the Assembly
Aontú (12 candidates) – republican – social conservative
Leader – Peadar Tóibín
Campaign heavily on a pro-life platform, playing for the more traditional catholic voters. Probably won’t win a seat in this election, although their transfers could be key in several constituencies.
Workers Party (6 candidates) – republican – Marxism-Leninism
Leader – Disputed
Arose from a split in Sinn Fein and the IRA in 1970. Has never had much support in Northern Ireland. Internal disputes led to a party split in 2020 and the position of party leader is currently disputed.
Progressive Unionist Party (3 candidates) – loyalist – social democracy
Leader – Billy Hutchinson
Began as the political wing of the UVF and RHC paramilitary groups to which it still retains some ties. The only left-of-centre unionist party. Was represented in early Assembly elections but lost its last seat in 2011.
IRSP (2 candidates) – violent republican – Marxism-Leninism
Leader – Ard Chomhairle (National Executive)
The political wing of the INLA republican paramilitary group. Defends the use of violence; the INLA are estimated to be responsible for at least 120 killings between 1975 and 2001.
Socialist Party (2 candidates) – non-sectarian – democratic socialism
Leader – Collective
Tiny socialist party with no representation historically.
NI Conservatives (1 candidate) – unionist – conservative
Leader – Matthew Robinson
The Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party. At one time they had a few councillors, but they have not been relevant for two decades. The current state of the party is unclear, with half the positions on the Party Board vacant.
Heritage (1 candidate) – unionist – right-wing populism
Leader – David Kurten
This small UK-wide party was formed in 2020 by former UKIP man David Kurten. It has yet to gain any representation anywhere in the UK and this will be its first attempt at running in Northern Ireland.
Resume NI (1 candidate) – unclear
Leader – Conor Rafferty
A new party without any presence, Resume’s only candidate previously stood for the far-right Irish Freedom Party in 2019.
What happened last time?
The 2017 election was triggered after Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuiness resigned due to the DUP first minister Arlene Foster’s role in the Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal, which cost taxpayers £500m. The election was held just nine months after the previous one. The number of MLAs was reduced from 108 to 90, which resulted in big seat losses for the DUP and UUP. The DUP remained the largest party with Sinn Fein in second although political unionism lost its majority for the first time. Sinn Fein refused to return to the power-sharing executive whilst Foster remained First Minister (amongst other demands). An agreement was finally reached three years later with the assembly returning in January 2020 having broken the world record for days without a functioning administration.
2 DUP, 2 Alliance, 1 UUP
This seat is made up of heavily working-class unionist areas of inner-city Belfast and middle-class suburbs. There is basically no nationalist vote here. It is an Alliance stronghold – they hold two seats, one of which belongs to party leader Naomi. This is the Green’s top target and TUV is also hopeful of being competitive. They are both targeting the DUP’s second seat although the UUP’s Andy Allen could also be sweating.
2 DUP, 2 SF, 1 SDLP
This constituency is very mixed, containing some of the poorest areas in Northern Ireland as well as some affluent suburbs. It is a patchwork of unionist and nationalist neighbourhoods. Both the DUP’s sitting MLAs are retiring and, having lost it’s MP here in 2019, their second seat looks vulnerable. Sinn Fein won’t be sitting comfortably either with Alliance in the hunt and the UUP securing a strong candidate in Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston. It is also a target for the Greens and PBP, but they are outside shots.
1 DUP, 1 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 Alliance, 1 Green
This is Northern Ireland’s most diverse constituency. There are large unionist and nationalist populations as well as a big non-sectarian vote, with the Greens and Alliance holding seats here. There are some pretty rough areas along with leafy suburbs. You’ll find more ethnic minorities there too, along with a large student population. Edwin Poots has moved into this seat for this election, and whilst being a terrible fit for the constituency, he is probably safe. Alliance, the UUP and SDLP are pursuing the constituency for gains, but it is probably lower down their target lists. In all likelihood, nothing will change.
4 SF, 1 PBP
This is Sinn Fein’s biggest stronghold and the only constituency where a party holds four seats. It’s mostly very working class. Non-Sinn Fein voters typically rally around PBP’s sole MLA Gerry Carroll. The SDLP is hoping to carve out a seat for itself here and a gain for Paul Doherty is not out of the question. Carroll will be fine, and Sinn Fein is odds on to hold on to what it has but don’t be surprised if the SDLP sneak in.
2 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 Alliance
Stretching from the outer reaches of Belfast up through the Glens of Antrim, this constituency is a mixture of fairly forgotten towns like Larne and Carrickfergus and fishing and farming communities further up the coast. The constituency is mostly solid unionist. The DUP has two seats here and will be concerned by the threat of the TUV, whose top target is this constituency. The UUP will also be worried by the Alliance threat. This constituency has a long Alliance tradition, and they are very hopeful of picking up a second seat.
2 DUP, 1 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 Ind.
This large, mostly rural constituency runs along much of the north coast which is a patchwork of unionist and nationalist areas. Coleraine is the main town – it is heavily unionist, even electing a PUP councillor in 2019. Alliance picked up a couple of councillors in the area in 2019 and their vote also surged in the general election. The SDLP snuck in on the final count last time but raced into 2nd in the general election, leading many to believe that Cara Hunter is safe. Popular independent Claire Sugden should have no issue holding on, which ought to put a fatal dent in any hopes Alliance or the UUP had of gaining a seat.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 UUP
This highly rural constituency has been incredibly marginal on the parliamentary level for a while now, with Sinn Fein taking the seat by just 57 votes in 2019. This is the seat of former DUP leader Arlene Foster (who left the Assembly last year) and one of the few seats the DUP is running an additional candidate. The SDLP are targeting one of Sinn Fein’s seats and it is certainly well within their capabilities to pull it off. Progressive independent Emma DeSouza is also running a strong campaign off the back of a court case she won which forced the UK to treat Northern Irish people as EU citizens for the purposes of immigration.
2 SF, 2 SDLP, 1 DUP
Foyle could well be one of the most interesting constituencies in 2022. It is mostly made up of the city of Derry. The city is heavily nationalist with a few unionist enclaves. This is one of the DUP’s most vulnerable seats, having just squeaked by in 2017. PBP will be looking to regain the seat they lost in 2017. Additionally, the SDLP is attempting to win a third seat in a city that has always been an SDLP stronghold. Party leader Colum Eastwood battered Sinn Fein in the last general election and internal turmoil in Sinn Fein has also raised hopes that one of its two seats could be on the table. The UUP is also hoping for a seat here by unifying the unionist vote around Ryan McCready instead of the DUP.
2 DUP, 1 Alliance, 1 UUP, 1 SDLP
This seat is quite urban, anchored in the city of Lisburn whilst including some of the outer reaches of Belfast and the surrounding rural areas. DUP party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is standing in the constituency, having been the Lagan Valley MP since 1997. He replaces former leader Edwin Poots who has been forcibly moved to Belfast South. Both DUP seats are safe, given how strong of a constituency has been for them over the years as is the UUP’s Robbie Butler. The SDLP holds an extremely marginal seat here and is conducting an energetic campaign to protect it. Alliance is targeting a second seat, having put in a very strong 2019 general election performance.
3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 SDLP
Mid Ulster is likely to be one of the most stable constituencies in 2022. This extremely rural constituency is mostly very nationalist, and unionists typically rally strongly around the DUP candidate. There are no obvious challengers to the status quo (except possibly the UUP who were close in 2017) and all incumbent MLAs will be confident in returning to Stormont.
Newry and Armagh
3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 SDLP
This border constituency is heavily nationalist, including Newry which is one of the most nationalist places in Northern Ireland. There are enough residual unionists to provide one unionist MLA. The three Sinn Fein candidates should be comfortable, as will the SDLP candidate. The DUP will be reasonably confident of holding the seat, but the UUP will believe they can take it, having gone relatively close in 2017.
2 DUP, 1 SF, 1 UUP, 1 TUV
Well known as being Paisley country, the evangelical vote dominates in this constituency. Sinn Fein holds a seat thanks to nationalists in the north whilst the TUV’s Jim Allister is extremely entrenched in the areas around Ballymena. Alliance has hopes of taking a seat here although it is not immediately clear who they would win one off. Both DUP incumbents are well-rooted along with Allister and the UUP’s Robin Swann remains Northern Ireland’s most popular politician due to his handling of the pandemic in his role as Health Minister. Sinn Fein’s seat may be the weakest so on a bad day for them and a good one for Alliance, there could be a change.
2 DUP, 1 Alliance, 1 UUP, 1 Green
North Down has long been a maverick constituency. Over the years it was the stronghold of the niche UKUP, it elected a NI Women’s Coalition MLA and was the first constituency to elect a Green. It also had an independent MP for 9 years who was then replaced in 2019 by Northern Ireland’s second Alliance MP. It is heavily unionist but also has a very strong non-sectarian vote. Former DUP MLA Alex Easton left the party last year and is well placed to hold on, having built a strong personal vote over the years. Alliance will also want a second seat off the back of 2019, but with Easton in the way, it could be tough. Both the UUP and Green seats look reasonably safe.
2 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 Alliance, 1 SF
Another fairly stable constituency, this area is mostly unionist with a recent history of UUP success. There is also enough of a nationalist vote that the SDLP is hopeful of taking a seat off the DUP here to go with Sinn Fein’s existing one. With Alliance only running one candidate the SDLP, TUV and UUP would all like to profit off any DUP drop in vote. The SDLP were close last time and could really do with a win here to counterbalance losses elsewhere. The DUP will still be reasonably confident of holding their seats but should not be complacent.
2 SF, 2 SDLP, 1 DUP
A mixture of farmland and mountains, South Down was an SDLP stronghold for a long time but Sinn Fein has taken the edge in recent years. This is one of Alliance’s top targets and a failure to win a seat here would reflect a bad night for the party. The only question is who they gain from. With one unionist seat anticipated, it is SDLP who will probably lose out, but Sinn Fein has had recent trouble in the constituency and any drop in vote nationally could cost them dearly here. The UUP is optimistic about taking the DUP seat vacated by the controversial Jim Wells although the DUP has become more confident since selecting Diane Forsythe. She is viewed as an up-and-comer in the party and is more moderate than Wells, which should be enough to see off the UUP challenge.
3 DUP, 1 Alliance, 1 UUP
Strangford is home to a lot of vehement loyalists in its urban areas of Newtownards and Comber whilst Alliance has been on the rise in the broader constituency for a while. This is probably the DUP’s most vulnerable seat with former Education Minister Peter Weir set to lose out following a series of disastrous decisions made during the pandemic. The SDLP has long targeted the seat and could finally take it if they can hold off pushes from Alliance and the UUP for second seats. The TUV will also be gunning hard here given their candidate is a councillor in Comber, but it will probably be a bridge too far for them.
2 DUP, 1 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 UUP
This seat is anchored around Craigavon and Lurgan which provide most of the nationalist votes whilst the more rural areas and Banbridge create a unionist majority. Alliance is increasingly confident of a gain after candidate Eoin Tennyson made big inroads in the 2019 general election. This is widely thought to be the SDLP’s most vulnerable seat. Dolores Kelly may be saved by the fall of the DUP but it’s not inconceivable that Alliance and Sinn Fein could both make a gain. If Alliance’s momentum flattens, the UUP will have high hopes of winning a second seat on the coattails of party leader Doug Beattie.
3 Sinn Fein, 1 DUP, 1 SDLP
An often-forgotten area in the West, this is one of Sinn Fein’s more vulnerable three-seaters. With both the DUP and SDLP looking safe both Alliance and the UUP will be gunning hard for that third Sinn Fein seat. However, the UUP has blundered, with the central party having shipped in Ian Marshall (a former Irish Senator) from outside the constituency. The constituency party has vehemently opposed his nomination and there are questions about the size of campaign Marshall can run due to a lack of local supporters. This leaves Alliance with a direct run and on a reasonably good night they could take the seat.